Canary in the Mine

I would like to talk to you about the College of Policing.  But part of the reason I want to do this is FOR the College of Policing. Please stick with me because the initial part of this blog could be construed as “negative.” It isn’t meant to be, but I feel the points made are necessary as they illustrate the issues that are coming up more and more in the relationship between the college and the people it has been established for. The cops and the staff. The second part, I hope, leads to the suggestion of something more positive.

At the end of the day The College of Policing is here to stay and so we need to make things work a lot better than they currently are.The relationship between officers and the College is strained. There is a perception that the College is not working in the way that officers might want. This is critical. This is about an organisation ESTABLISHED for officers – about supporting THEIR development, improving fairness and ensuring a more consistent approach, through more effective training. About increasing the evidence base. But – there seems to be a problem….

You’d have thought – if the appetite was there – that any employees would flock to join something that was supposed to be as helpful as their own college. But, here we are, 5 years after its inception and I believe that around 90% of police officers and staff are NOT members. (I am happy to be corrected on this figure – it is based on Home Office figures of a police workforce of just under 200,000 as of March 2017 and recent College announcement of just over 20,000 members.)

In fact, anecdotally, we hear that even those that have joined are not actually actively engaging rather they have simply become a number on the College books. This is not enough for the College to gain legitimacy amongst the frontline.

Born under a bad sign

The thing is – Police officers didn’t ask for their own college. Through no fault of its own, the College was conceived and introduced off the back of a perceived insult – that the police organisation was not in line with other professions and therefore by proxy the assumption was that police officers weren’t professional. That they were, in some way, inferior to lawyers, medics and social workers.

The College of Policing was created in part to deal with an inferiority complex which police officers didn’t have and still don’t have. It was created to bring policing “into line” with other professions but the requirement and desire for this was never demonstrated. The manner in which it was announced would also have managed to get the backs up of anyone who was paying attention and so it was from this unfortunate starting position that the College began life. Engagement with frontline staff was debatable from the start and this was raised by officers and academics alike from an early stage.

If you speak to officers on the front line about the College the responses range from a rare “it’s great” right through to “Quango”, “Government Puppet” and worse…”Who?”

Confusion and contradiction 

These things are being said about an organisation which is supposed to set the standards for all of policing – but a lot of their work isn’t seen, isn’t recognised or, in some cases, is ignored.

The College was set up to promote and develop a professionalisation agenda. This involved the further promotion of evidence based policing, the PEQF and the implementation of a policing code of ethics.   “What  works” in policing is, in and of itself, a complex concept as anyone with a true understanding of evidence based policing will tell you. It doesn’t help one bit that the Government has rejected the College’s advice on more than one occasion. For a body which is supposed to work with evidence and fact it must have been a shock for Government to largely dismiss the demand profile the College completed in 2015 and then, even more of a kick in the teeth, to completely ignore the concerns raised about changes to police bail.

The highest profile work the College has been completing is based on entry routes to the service and an educational qualifications framework. Direct Entry for example – expanded before it has been fully evaluated – something which again seems to fly in the face of a properly run pilot scheme and evidence based scientific method. If you look close enough there are many contradictions in what the College says and what it does and, worse, this happens with little information being passed back to the frontline. There is an inescapable feeling that the College does what the Government tell it to do. This is helped not one bit by the fact that it is pay-rolled by the Home Office and is not ‘yet’ independent.

Never has this been more awkward than when it comes to addressing questions about the College’s involvement in providing training to regimes with questionable human rights records. Especially when spokespeople cannot answer questions at a Home Affairs Select Committee. Does this not raise a very serious ethical dilemma and undermine the Code of Ethics and therefore the legitimacy and credibility of the College?

Lest we forget “Degreegate” which could and has  generated several blogs on its own but it is yet to be proven that officers or the public are convinced by the argument that all officers having degrees is necessary or will improve policing.

And now – it seems – neither are the Chiefs.. They have now raised concerns about the affordability and practicality of this in relation to tying future promotions to further formal qualifications. This in itself is a huge issue as, if it goes ahead, it may lead to different forces using the same inconsistent approach to training that the College seeks to eradicate.

I have said this before but making something compulsory is not the same as truly embedding it. People doing something because they have to can often lead to resentment. I know of officers who are already involved in promotion processes which now require them to submit fully Harvard referenced research essays and I am yet to hear any of them say anything positive about it. Some are confused; some don’t understand the point and some simply do not know how to do it. The consistent point appears to be “why are we doing this?”

Canaries in the mine

Two years ago, the then CEO of the College stood before the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth and admitted that communications were a problem. He asked for “canaries in the mine”. For people to flag up loudly that something was wrong. Well – I don’t think anyone can argue that the canaries have been making a lot of noise since then. The question is – what has happened as a result? Yesterday a request was put to the College and suggestion of assurance with capturing these voices. We will see what happens.

Membership has not soared. The press hasn’t got any better. The general tone of discussions about the College  has not improved either.

Recently we have had the “tin eared response” to the pay announcement and the publication of the video on restraint which seems to have been spectacularly badly received by officers. And now the Chiefs say they want to delay the implementation of a fundamental plank of the College’s work. Almost its raison d’etre.

Forgive me for sounding bleak here but this is what is happening.

So – what is going wrong and how do we fix it?

Let us start with this premise. The College of Policing is unlikely to be going anywhere. It is here to stay and could be a force for good. I think it wants to be – there are really good people working at the College and they are doing really worthy research- but at the moment it is “too much ‘College’ and not enough ‘policing.'”

All the talk has been (perceived) as being academic, copying the attributes of a “Profession” and about elite-entry schemes who have access to different training and knowledge than the masses. Everyone else gets NCALT. This has to change. To many – the work of the College of Policing is just something that happens to other people.

It should be an exciting time for academia with regards to policing. New research centres are being set up. There is much buzz about delivering the qualifications that were planned. There is a genuine passion for academia and policing to become more closely connected. But right now it feels like a forced marriage rather than early dating. There is a long relationship between academia and the police and the issues have been challenging for a number of reasons. Changing this will take time for both parties and cannot be forced and, therefore, assumed fixed.

Slow down to speed up

Academic culture and policing culture are poles apart. Light years apart. In some areas they are almost completely incompatible. I accept that the only way you can bring them closer together is by mixing. But the movement seems to be to do it all at once. From “zero” to “all officers having degrees”. From a culture which doesn’t yet understand evidenced based policing to suddenly making it a compulsory part of a promotion process and annual appraisal. At the moment it all seems too fast, too imposed and without the involvement of the very people it will affect the most.

The aspiration is grand and, despite everything I say here, does potentially stand to improve policing IF it is done carefully, gradually and MOST IMPORTANTLY – WITH the officers and staff themselves.

This is probably where the College is most in need of help. There is a Professional Committee and indeed there is a Members’ Committee but I would suspect that the latter was a self-selecting group of positive and passionate volunteers who already think academically and who are very much wanting to see the College exist and succeed. Although I am sure there a those inside that challenge at times I wonder how much these views are heard and acted on.

Actually – there are a lot more people out there who do not know what the College does, do not agree with its direction, do not support it and it is THESE people who need to be factored into things more heavily. If it was a minority then you could put it down to “Laggards” but IS IT a minority? Or is it a sizable majority who, for one reason or another, simply are not aware of or behind the college? If 90% of staff are not members….

“Become a member – get involved” I have been told. Well – asides from my own personal issues re the human rights questions – I don’t frequently become a member of anything until I know what it is for or whether or not it will help me or benefit me in some way. Unless membership is made compulsory – or opt out rather than opt in – I don’t see the membership of the College increasing at a more rapid rate than it has already. Which is slow.

Can something be truly representative when the vast majority of people it is supposed to represent are not actively signed up to it or even communicating with it? Plus what will I get for joining? Where will my voice make a difference?

Is it too late?

This isn’t just about the College selling itself and listening to more people. A point may have been reached  where it needs to examine its entire purpose and message. If the Chiefs are now saying that the central tenets of the qualification framework may not be sustainable then where do we go from here?

Some have suggested that it is already too late. That the gulf between the front line and the college is so great that it cannot be recovered. I have to say I am leaning in this direction but – actually – I would prefer to see a College of Policing that works both for and with officers whether they are members or not.

The College urgently needs to seek counsel from its most vocal critics and even those who are most apathetic to its existence. They will tell them all they need to know about why there is a disconnect and why their messages are not penetrating.

The College needs to be more inclusive and it needs to extend its sounding board HUGELY. I admit that I do not know who they are testing things like the recent video on restraint with – but there is only one group of people who can give them accurate feedback. The audience it was intended for. I am quite sure that any front-line response team anywhere in the country would have given feedback on that video which would have led to a rewrite or reconsideration.

There needs to be a recognition that most officers and staff are not currently equipped to read academic papers or lengthy research documents. This is as much about time as it is about training and experience. Products need to appeal instantly and make total sense, wherever possible, in the shortest format possible. But – they mustn’t patronise the audience. It is a delicate balance – content is one thing but language is EVERYTHING.

I have said it elsewhere but the College needs to take advantage of the bi-lingual. People who can speak fluent Academic and fluent Cop. I have termed them Babel Fish  in another blog. We need them with the health service and we urgently need them to bridge the academic / police divide.

It would be good if the College accepted far more help from non-members. There are reasons why they are non-members. Who knows – maybe with enough time and involvement they would willingly join something they felt they could support. Is there any reason why a Non-Members Committee could not be formed?

I am sure that, if the College were to read and respond to this, they would tell me that they already do these things. If so – are they doing it enough?

A genuine offer

Believe it or not – I would rather see the College of Policing succeed. I would rather see it functioning well with all officers and staff and for its work to be hailed and actually READ by officers, staff and – yes – government. I would rather see a College of Policing that people WANT to join – myself included. An entity that I understood and one that I felt supported me. Something to be an active part of – and I am pretty sure that this is actually the aspiration of the College now.

But that isn’t how things stand. Not just for me but for many. Things are currently broken, aren’t they? And something needs to be done to fix it?

It feels as though we might have reached a watershed moment. The feedback from that video was entirely negative, a main plank of work is possibly about to be delayed. Is now not the ideal time – the last opportunity – to reflect and rebuild?

This blog is not about bashing the College of Policing or its dedicated and hard working staff. It is an alarm – that things are not working for us out here. We just ain’t feeling it. If I’m honest – I worry for the College staff as well. They can’t be immune to the constant negative feedback. What effect is this having on them?

After events of this week in particular, I have seen a number of people on social media – non-members with reservations and doubts – offering to meet with College representatives to try and explain what isn’t working.

The offer is there – if you wish to take it.

The College asked for canaries in the mine two years ago but doesn’t seem to have followed through on that request. Since then – things have got worse. The problem with canaries in mines is that when they STOP singing – it IS too late.

I would like to thank Emma Williams and others who have helped me check this blog for tone – temperature and balance. 



One response to “Canary in the Mine”

  1. MSt Cynic (Cantab) says :

    Largely yes – you are spot on with the central issue of legitimacy. The problem is that the College isn’t capable of improving that situation themselves as this administration isn’t going to surrender their useful puppet willingly.
    I’m also less persuaded that the College isn’t ‘going anywhere’. Successive governments have a history of cancelling each other’s flagship projects. Remember NCIS?

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